• The Star Staff

Federal agents scour home as they hunt for clues in Nashville blast

By Rick Rojas, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Giulia McDonell Nieto Del Rio and Steve Cavendish

Investigators were rushing Saturday to piece together what officials described as an elaborate jigsaw puzzle, chasing hundreds of leads, to identify the culprit and the motivation behind the Christmas Day explosion that rocked Nashville, Tennessee.

Federal officials said Saturday that the investigation included hundreds of federal agents, who were following up on nearly 500 tips that had been called in since Friday. They said they were still trying to determine whether more than one person was involved.

Authorities have identified a 63-year-old man who apparently owned a recreational vehicle similar to the one in the bombing and were seeking to question him, according to a federal law enforcement official familiar with the investigation.

Officials said that federal agents were searching for signs in Antioch, a community in the Nashville area, where investigators were seen walking around a brick house. An image of the building from May 2019, captured on Google Street View, shows an RV in the yard that appears similar to the one that authorities say is at the center of the explosion.

“Our investigative team is turning over every stone,” Douglas Korneski, the special agent in charge of the FBI field office in Memphis, Tennessee, said in a news conference Saturday, “to make sure we know as many details as possible to answer the question of who is responsible for this, and also to understand why did they do this.”

In Nashville, a several-block area was closed off in a search for evidence Saturday. Officials said that they were aware of no other explosive threats and that the search so far had not uncovered any other devices in the area.

“It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle created by a bomb that throws pieces of evidence across multiple city blocks,” Donald Q. Cochran, the U.S. attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee, said during the Saturday briefing. “They have got to gather it; they have got to catalog it, put it back together.”

The explosion came Friday morning after Nashville police officers responding to a complaint about gunfire encountered an RV parked on Second Avenue North blaring a message that a bomb was about to detonate. The blast rippled across several blocks, blowing windows and even causing one building to collapse, and it left Nashville rattled and perplexed.

Authorities said that the explosion had the potential to inflict enormous carnage, had it detonated at a time other than early on a quiet holiday morning and without a warning that led police officers to clear away as many people in surrounding buildings as they could. Three people were hospitalized. Police officials said there were no indications of fatalities, but possible human tissue had been found amid the debris.

But the blast caused considerable disruption, as it damaged a critical piece of the broader area’s telecommunications infrastructure. Authorities were also forced to cordon off a large section of downtown, displacing dozens of people and leaving business owners unable to reach their shops and offices.

One of the major lines of inquiry was whether there was significance in the location of the blast: on a downtown street in front of an AT&T transmission building. The explosion created significant damage to the facility, causing widespread repercussions to telecommunication systems in Nashville and beyond. Officials said the outages have affected 911 operations and flights at Nashville International Airport. Across the region, residents and businesses lost cellphone service and internet connections, and many were still experiencing issues Saturday.

AT&T has installed portable cell sites in downtown Nashville to alleviate some of the outages, the company said. Workers were drilling access holes into the building and trying to restore power to equipment essential to resuming service.

“Challenges remain, including a fire which reignited overnight and led to the evacuation of the building,” the company said in a statement Saturday. And in a previous statement, AT&T officials said, “There are serious logistical challenges to working in a disaster area and we will make measurable progress in the hours and days ahead.”

The explosion affected some cell service across parts of Tennessee, Kentucky and Alabama and hindered the communication of 20 or more 911 call centers, Gov. Bill Lee of Tennessee said.

The Federal Aviation Administration temporarily halted flights out of the Nashville International Airport because of telecommunications issues caused by the blast. The FAA also labeled the skies within about 1 mile of the blast “national defense airspace,” meaning pilots are prohibited from flying overhead without special authorization.

On the day after Christmas, shoppers at some retail outlets had to pay with cash or checks, as sellers could not access credit card systems. Cash-only sales were reported by shoppers in Dickson and Franklin, Tennessee, at national retailers like Walmart and Old Navy.

On Saturday morning, Lee, a Republican, toured the scene and shared a letter he wrote to President Donald Trump asking him to declare an emergency disaster for Tennessee and send federal aid to help with the recovery, given the “severity and magnitude” of the destruction.

At least 41 buildings sustained damage in the blast. At a hostel near the site, security cameras captured footage of the explosion blowing in the front doors of the building, which was filled with dust and debris. More than a day later, the water from sprinklers had not been shut off.